When I was researching my book Mean People Suck, I came across this research by Fortune on the most admired CEOs. Many people are already familiar with Fortune’s list of the World’s Most Admired Companies, but for the last three years, Fortune has also asked survey respondents to give their personal opinions on the CEOs of those companies.
The results are quite illuminating. The leaders of some of the world’s biggest and most famous companies are not necessarily the most respected.
I was particularly intrigued to read that Microsoft’s Satya Nadella has won the top spot as “most underrated CEO” for the last three years running. In fact, he had more than twice as many votes as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos this year.
Looking into what Nadella has achieved during his time at Microsoft, it’s not too surprising that people think he’s a great CEO – Microsoft even bumped Apple of the top spot of most valuable US companies earlier this year. But, why exactly do his peers think that his talents are going unrecognized?
- Behind every successful company is a great CEO. The world’s best CEOs are respected for their people skills as well as their business acumen.
- People no longer want to work for a company that just makes good products. Refocusing your mission statement around people can make all the difference.
- Empathy promotes understanding and collaboration, which in turn leads to innovation.
How Life’s Lessons in Empathy Can Impact Leadership Performance
Satya Nadella boasts an impressive career record. After growing up and studying in Hyderabad, India, he moved to the US to study and worked for Sun Microsystems before joining Microsoft in 1992.
During his time at Microsoft, Nadella has led several major projects and was instrumental in the development of Azure cloud. He successfully led the transformation of the company culture from client services to the cloud, including its database, server, and developer tools. Since becoming CEO in 2014, he has shifted Microsoft’s relationship with other companies including Apple, IBM, and Linux to being collaborators rather than competitors.
This is all very inspiring, but it’s actually Nadella’s personal life that I found gave me the most insight into his character and leadership style.
In Nadella’s autobiography, Hit Refresh, he talks about how his wife gave birth to their son, Zain, prematurely. Weighing only three pounds, the child suffered severe brain damage and cerebral palsy.
Nadella’s first reaction to this was one we can all probably understand – “Why me?” However, shortly he came to realize that his son was the only person directly suffering from this situation. He writes in his book, “It was time for me to step up and see life through his eyes and do what I should do as a parent and father.”
Our experiences as a human being shape every aspect of our lives, so it’s not at all surprising that Nadella took this lesson in empathy and applied it to his role of CEO at Microsoft.
Nadella felt that Microsoft’s company culture was too focused on telling, rather than learning. He felt the organization was lacking a “soul” and putting its products before its people (including its employees and customers.)
During Nadella’s tenure as CEO, Microsoft updated its mission statement to “empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more,” reflecting the evolving corporate culture’s emphasis on growth and continual learning.
Using Empathy to Spark Innovation
Microsoft’s cultural shift not only made the company a better place to work. It also was instrumental in making the organization one of the world’s major innovators, after a long period of stagnation.
In particular, Nadella’s experience with raising a child with special needs gave him a special interest in creating accessible technology. Investing in technologies such as AI to make more accessible products has enabled Microsoft to create some of the world’s most innovative technology.
For example, Swetha Machanavajhala, a Microsoft software engineer who has been deaf since birth, came up with the idea of developing background-blurring technology to make lip-reading over video easier. This technology was not only helpful for deaf users, but it also helped to improve privacy for general users.
Machanavajhala noted how Microsoft’s culture of empathy had helped her encourage her creativity and spark innovation, in contrast to previous companies she’d worked for, where she had never felt fully included due to her disability.
As another Microsoft employee, Rene Brandel, explains: “There’s this feeling of empathy among teams now to try to make each other successful, instead of so much internal competition. I’ve never talked with Satya in person. But he fosters this culture of learning and of respectfully questioning each other, to try to understand the other perspectives. The whole emphasis on empathy is really shining through in situations where there’s a dire need to innovate and create something individuals need and want.”
Leading a Culture of Empathy
Nadella has been outspoken on his belief that to be successful, a CEO must have empathy as well as confidence. This “soft skill” may be seen as irrelevant in the world of business, but as a company’s brand and culture start to become more important than the products it sells, it will be all the more important for the CEOs of today and tomorrow to lead with empathy.
Employing empathy in leadership sets a tone of trust and helps to bring people together in the sense that they’re working towards a common mission. Boosting employee engagement in this way has a positive knock-on effect that leads to better productivity, higher levels of innovation, and a better customer experience. Creating a supportive business culture means leading with empathy and mutual respect, setting an example for all other employees to follow.
So what do you think? Please consider picking up your copy of Mean People Suck today, and get the bonus visual companion guide as well. Or check out our services to help evolve your culture. And I would be thrilled to come present to your team on the power of empathy!